Discover the Major Area of Study for High School

Discover the Major Area of Study for High School

Choosing suitable courses in high school is an essential step in preparing for college and career. Knowing which classes to take can feel overwhelming, with so many options available. Though specific graduation requirements vary by state and school district, most U.S. high schools require students to complete core courses in English, math, science, history, and foreign languages. Beyond these foundational classes, students can often choose a major area of study for high school that matches their skills and interests. When selecting a program of study, keep in mind graduation requirements and entrance criteria for colleges you may want to attend in the future. Here is an overview of the significant areas of study commonly available in high school and what each entails.

English/Language Arts

English/Language Arts

English or Language Arts courses aim to develop students’ reading comprehension and critical thinking skills while expanding their vocabulary and exposure to literary works. Typical course topics include:

  • Literature – Classes cover influential works of fiction and nonfiction from authors worldwide and throughout history. I am learning to analyze narratives, characters, themes, and literary devices.
  • Composition – Gaining proficiency in writing for different purposes and audiences. Focus on crafting solid arguments, personal narratives, research reports, creative works, and more.
  • Communications – Oral presentation skills, interpersonal communication, public speaking, and debate.
  • Language Skills – Proper grammar usage, vocabulary building, etymology, and mechanics.
  • Research and Technical Writing – Planning, organizing, developing, and finalizing research papers and projects, evaluating sources, and citing evidence.
  • Journalism – Reporting and media skills such as interviewing, investigating stories, editing, and layout design.

Literature and composition courses are usually required all four years of high school. Communications, language skills, and journalism are popular electives.


Math classes aim to build students’ understanding of numbers, quantitative reasoning, analysis, mathematical modeling, and practical applications. Standard progression is:

  • Pre-Algebra – Introductory concepts like number theory, integers, fractions, ratios, linear equations, graphing, and statistics.
  • Algebra I – Solving equations and inequalities, coordinate planes, functions, exponentials, quadratic equations, and introductory trigonometry.
  • Geometry – Euclidean geometry principles, logic, proofs, measurements, formulas, and spatial reasoning.
  • Algebra II – Extends Algebra I with matrices, complex numbers, logarithmic functions, sequences, and series.
  • Pre-Calculus – Trigonometric functions, vectors, conic sections, parametric equations, and mathematical analysis.
  • Calculus – Limits, derivatives, integrals, and infinite series. Includes differential and integral calculus.
  • Statistics – Working with data, distributions, probability, hypothesis testing, regression, and correlation.

Algebra I and Geometry are typically required. Other courses depend on the student’s college and career goals. Electives include Trigonometry, Calculus, Statistics, and Advanced Math Topics.


High school science aims to deepen students’ understanding of the natural world and scientific principles. The standard course sequence is as follows:

  • Biology – Foundations of life on Earth. Topics include cells, biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, genetics, evolution, ecosystems and living systems.
  • Chemistry – Composition, properties, and interactions of matter. It may cover atomic structure, chemical bonds, chemical reactions, solutions, acids/bases, and introduction to organic chemistry.
  • Physics – Foundations of the universe and its forces. Potential topics include motion, energy, gravity, electricity, magnetism, thermodynamics, nuclear reactions, and quantum phenomena.
  • Earth and Space Science – Geology, meteorology, oceanography, and astronomy principles. It covers Earth’s atmosphere, weather, climate, rocks, minerals, volcanoes, plate tectonics, oceans, solar system, and the universe.

At a minimum, Biology and Chemistry or Physics are typically required. Electives like Anatomy, Marine Biology, or Meteorology allow specialization. Advanced Placement (AP) offerings are available too.

Social Studies

Social Studies encompass history, geography, political science, sociology, anthropology, and economics. Typical high school course topics include:

  • World History – Traces the development of human civilizations, cultures, events, and global interactions over time. Starts with ancient civilizations up to the present.
  • European History – Major events and eras focusing on Western civilization and Europe. It may be divided into separate courses on early and modern European history.
  • United States History – Examines significant events, issues, leaders, groups, and turning points in American history. It is often divided into two years, covering early U.S. history and modern.
  • Government/Civics – Foundations and functions of the U.S. political system. It covers the constitution, branches of the federal government, state/local government, elections, political parties, interest groups, and public policy.
  • Geography – World regions, maps, physical and human/cultural geography. Some courses focus specifically on physical or human geography as separate subjects.
  • Economics – Introduction to economic systems, supply and demand, business, markets, trade, banking, and societal impacts. Microeconomics and macroeconomics may be separated.
  • Psychology – Examines human behavior, cognition, motivations, and interactions through a psychological lens. It may cover significant theorists and their perspectives.
  • Sociology – Studies groups, cultures, social institutions, norms, inequalities, and collective human behavior through a sociological perspective.

World History, U.S. History, and Government/Civics courses are typically required. Other social studies electives are also common.

World Languages

Language courses aim to develop students’ fluency and communication skills in a non-English language. Options vary by school but commonly include:

  • Spanish – It is a widely taught language in U.S. high schools and a valuable skill for college and careers. Builds skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening in Spanish.
  • French – Cultivates proficiency in this globally influential language and Francophone cultures. Stresses written and conversational French.
  • German – Introduces the German language and its role in the global industry, history, and culture. Focuses on German vocabulary, grammar rules, and pronunciation.
  • Latin – Helps build English vocabulary and enhances understanding of ancient Roman culture and history, literature, art, philosophy, and politics by studying Latin texts.
  • Chinese – Mandarin Chinese is a critical language for global business. Courses emphasize Chinese characters, tones, grammar, and conversation skills.
  • American Sign Language (ASL) – Develops visual-gesture language abilities and explores Deaf culture. Communication in ASL relies on hand signs, facial expressions, and body motions.

For admission, colleges require at least two years of a world language like Spanish, French, or Mandarin. Taking languages all four years of high school allows reaching advanced proficiency.

Physical Education (PE)

PE aims to develop health and fitness habits through physical activity. Course options may include:

  • General PE – Covers a variety of sports and activities like basketball, volleyball, soccer, flag football, dance, weight training, and cardio exercises. Teaches athletic skills, teamwork, and sportsmanship.
  • Strength and Conditioning – Focus specifically on improving muscular fitness through weight training, resistance bands, calisthenics, plyometrics, and core work.
  • Personal Fitness – Centers on cardiovascular endurance, flexibility training, monitoring heart rate zones, and meeting individual exercise goals. It may incorporate jogging, aerobics, yoga, Pilates, etc.
  • Sports Coaching – Advanced PE courses for developing coaching skills and more profound knowledge of competitive team sports or individual sports like golf, tennis, or swimming.
  • Dance – Builds dance technique in various styles like ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop, salsa, and modern. It may include choreography and performance.
  • Gymnastics – Teaching skills on different apparatuses like floors, beams, bars, rings, and trampolines. Focuses on building strength, flexibility, balance, and tumbling abilities.

Schools typically require 1-2 years of PE to graduate. Many states allow substituting school sports, ROTC, marching band, or dance for PE credit.

Health Education

Health courses empower students to make informed choices about wellness and lifestyle habits. The curriculum typically includes the following:

  • Nutrition – Principles for developing healthy eating patterns and the relationship between diet and health. Covers nutrients, portion control, safe food handling, and more.
  • Physical Health – Components of fitness, injury prevention, sun safety, effects of substance use, disease prevention, sexual health, hygiene, and more.
  • Mental and Emotional Health – Stress management, healthy relationships, understanding emotions, resilience, addiction, anxiety, depression, and seeking help.
  • Community Health – Local resources, analyzing media and societal influences, first aid basics, CPR training, avoiding preventable risks, and advocating for personal and community health.

Most schools require a semester of health education. Topics covered depend on state standards.

Fine Arts

Acceptable arts courses nurture creativity, cultural appreciation, and artistic expression. Standard options include:

Visual Arts

  • Drawing – Develops 2D art techniques in media like graphite, charcoal, pastels, and ink using various drawing surfaces. It covers perspective, shading, figure drawing, and composition.
  • Painting – Explores painting mediums like watercolor, acrylics, oil paints, and mixed media. Color theory, brushwork, canvas stretching, and framing may be incorporated.
  • Sculpture – 3D design using mediums like clay, plaster, wood, metals, stone, found objects, and mixed materials. Additive and subtractive methods, installation, and kinetics could be covered.
  • Photography – Composition, lighting, portraiture, editing, history, and digital or film development techniques. Darkroom processes may be included.
  • Digital Art – Creating art digitally using software like Photoshop, Illustrator, and animation tools. It can include photo editing, logo/graphic design, digital painting, and multimedia.
  • AP Studio Art – Rigorous, college-level art course in drawing, 2D or 3D design. Culminates in a completed art portfolio.

Performing Arts

  • Choir – Covers vocal techniques like breath control, expanding range, sight singing, and harmony. Performs choral literature across genres and languages.
  • Concert Band – Playing wind and percussion instruments in an ensemble setting. Covers music reading, intonation, tone production, rhythmic accuracy, blend, and balance.
  • Jazz Band – Development of jazz techniques, improvisation, and theory, and stylistic elements on saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, guitar, and percussion.
  • Orchestra – Play string instruments like violin, viola, cello, and bass. It focuses on precise intonation, bowing techniques, sight reading, tonal production, and ensemble cohesion.
  • Music Appreciation/Theory – Foundations of music like notation, rhythm, scales, melody, harmony, composition, history, and influential musicians across genres.
  • Drama – Acting skills, theatrical conventions, improvisation techniques, interpreting dramatic literature, and live performance.
  • Dance – Listed under PE, but can also be taken as a fine art—covers dance technique and choreography.

Art and music courses support college readiness in fine arts. Some schools offer AP Music Throat some schools and technical theater courses on lighting, set design, and stagecraft.

Career and Technical Education (CTE)

CTE courses prepare students for employment or advanced technical training in various fields. Options adapt to local workforce needs but commonly include:

  • Business – Accounting, marketing, entrepreneurship, personal finance, economics, hospitality, e-commerce, and administration skills tailored to the professional world.
  • Agriculture – Plant/animal science, natural resources, forestry, horticulture, and applied agricultural mechanics. FFA involvement is joint.
  • Engineering – Foundational STEM and drafting skills like computer-aided design, electronics, robotics, mechanics, and programming applied to engineering problems.
  • Computer Science – Software development, coding, web design, networking, PC maintenance/repair, and cybersecurity skills. May earn industry certifications.
  • Manufacturing – Operating industrial tools and machinery, welding, metal fabrication, robotics, 3D printing, and industry processes.
  • Health Sciences – Terminology, body systems, CPR, first aid, patient care, medical equipment, and other skills for healthcare careers like nursing, EMT, sports medicine, or exercise science.
  • Early Childhood Education – Child development, learning environments, teaching strategies, and supervised experiences in preschool and elementary classrooms.
  • Culinary Arts – Food preparation skills, nutrition, safety and sanitation, cooking techniques, menu planning, and restaurant operations.
  • Construction Trades – Electrical, plumbing, carpentry, masonry, HVAC, and related skills for building trades. Includes hands-on projects.

Many CTE courses incorporate job shadows, internships, and dual enrollment options to earn college credit. They provide a path to starting a career or continuing technical education after high school.

Additional Electives

Beyond core classes, many high schools offer diverse electives that allow tailoring your program around specific interests:

  • STEM Electives – Forensics, robotics, game design, programming, advanced math/science like calculus, physics, and human anatomy.
  • Law & Criminal Justice – Foundations of the legal system, Constitutional law, criminology, court procedures, comparative justice systems, and crime scene investigation skills.
  • Psychology & Sociology – Add social studies exposure to these fields through additional psychology, sociology, and anthropology courses.
  • Religious Studies – World religions, a survey of the Bible, gospel literature, and influence of religions on global cultures.
  • Personal Finance – Real-world budgeting, credit, financing, taxes, investing, and money management skills.
  • Life Skills – Courses that cultivate skills for adult life like cooking, child development, relationships, and maintenance skills.
  • Test Prep Electives – ACT/SAT preparation to boost testing skills and confidence for college admissions exams. Practice tests and application help are incorporated.
  • Yearbook/Newspaper – For students interested in yearbook design, journalism, publishing, photography, and business management.

This sampling of high school electives is far from exhaustive but shows the diverse options open to students. Explore what your high school offers and take courses aligned with your goals.

Planning Your Coursework
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Planning Your Coursework

With endless possibilities, planning is critical to completing the high school courses suitable to your objectives. Here are some tips:

  • Check graduation requirements – Know what classes and credits your state and high school mandate to earn a diploma.
  • Map out academic basics – Make sure to schedule required courses first. You’ll need minimum credits in core subjects like math, English, social studies, science, languages, arts, PE, and health. Counselors can provide planning guides specific to your high school.
  • Get on track for college – If you plan to attend a 4-year college after graduation, research admission requirements at schools you’re interested in hearing about. Take high school courses that align with prerequisites.
  • Explore electives – Make room in your schedule to study subjects that appeal to you or align with potential college majors/careers. Anatomy if you’re interested in medicine, photography for graphic design, or engineering electives if that’s your college path.
  • Don’t overdo it – Challenge yourself academically, but be realistic about your workload. It’s better to excel at 4-5 core courses per semester than become overwhelmed with seven advanced classes.
  • Prioritize passions – Make time for electives related to your talents and interests, even if you don’t plan to pursue them as a career—for example, concert band, theater, creative writing, or computer programming.
  • Consider CTE options – CTE electives let you explore potential career fields firsthand and earn industry credentials for jobs right after high school.
  • Talk to your counselor – School counselors are invaluable resources for identifying courses that fit your academic and career goals. Rely on their expertise and advice.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Reflect on the following questions to focus your high school course selections:

  • What are my academic strengths and interests? Which subjects do I enjoy learning about?
  • What careers or college majors am I considering after high school? What skills and knowledge will those pathways require?
  • Which courses will keep me on track for college admission? Should I take any ACT/SAT prep electives?
  • Which electives will allow me to cultivate my talents, creativity, and passion?
  • Are there any careers related CTE courses I’m interested in exploring?
  • What role do AP or accelerated courses play in my academic strengths and prepare me for college-level work?
  • Do I have room in my schedule to study fun and stimulating subjects, even if they don’t align with a college major or career?
  • Do my elective interests overlap with potential scholarship opportunities like art, music, coding, or STEM competitions?

Whatever answers and insights surface, use them to shape an inspiring program of study tailored to who you are and who you want to become. Your high school coursework builds a solid foundation for your next steps after graduation.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the standard high school graduation requirements?

Requirements vary significantly by state and district, but most mandate around 15-25 credits in core subjects: 4 English, 3 Math (through Algebra II), 3 Science, 3 Social Studies, 1-2 Foreign Language, 1-2 Fine Arts, 1-2 Physical Education, and 0.5-1 Health Education.

How many elective courses should you take in high school?

Ideally, prominent in the basics and minor in electives. Shoot for at least 2-3 electives per year that align with your academic and career interests while covering all required courses.

What if I don’t know what I want to major in for college yet?

That’s very common! Try out electives that introduce you to fields like business, engineering, IT, health sciences, fine arts, or education as you explore your interests. Required core classes keep options open, too.

Should I take AP or dual enrollment classes?

Taking 2-3 AP or college-level classes prepares you for challenging coursework. But don’t overload yourself. It’s better to excel at rigorous courses aligned with your strengths than become overwhelmed with a highly demanding schedule. Counselors can help find the right balance.

What electives do colleges look for?

Colleges like to see you pursuing advanced coursework, taking on leadership roles in electives, and exploring areas of interest. 

Last Words

High school is an exciting time to define your academic interests and talents while laying the foundation for college and career success. When selecting courses, balance requirements and electives that introduce you to new subjects while aligning with your strengths and goals.

Aim to excel at core courses like math, science, English, and history that teach essential skills for any field. Complement your required classes with electives that allow creativity, exploration, and real-world experience in fine arts, technology, languages, and career pathways if you plan to attend college, research admission requirements at target schools, and take classes demonstrating readiness for higher academics.

Finally, don’t spread yourself too thin – it’s better to thrive with a focused, meaningful course load than become overwhelmed trying to take every possible class. Engaging substitute teaching plans for middle school students can serve as a crucial foundation, encouraging early dialogue with counselors, teachers, and parents to shape your ideal program. This collaborative approach aligns with graduation requirements, college aspirations, and personal development, mirroring the high school curriculum’s potential to explore passions. Through sound planning and self-reflection, students can fully leverage these formative years to pave their way towards a fulfilling educational journey.

George Bowman

George Bowman: An education enthusiast on a mission to ignite curiosity and empower learners through innovative teaching methods and personalized experiences.

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